Public Media Arts Hub

Joan Didion’s nephew reflects on her legacy and inspirations: ‘Life was her material’

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Finally, tonight, as we promised, remembering the life and work of author and essayist Joan Didion.

Jeffrey Brown has our appreciation.

Joan Didion, Author and Essayist: In certain latitudes, there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.

Jeffrey Brown: She captured moments in American culture with penetrating clarity and style, from the Manson murders, to the case of the Central Park Five, and then turned those same observational powers onto her own intimate losses and grief.

One of America's most iconic writers, Joan Didion began her career at "Vogue" magazine after winning an essay contest in college, and went on to write for magazines and journals like "LIFE" and "The New York Review of Books."

Her first nonfiction collection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," chronicled the unraveling of Southern California's social fabric in the late 1960s, what she called America's atomization, the proof that things fall apart.

She went on to publish several more collections of groundbreaking reporting, establishing herself as a leading voice in personal narrative, so-called new journalism. In a 2017 documentary, critic Hilton Als spoke of her book of essays "The White Album."

Hilton Als, Writer and Critic: On The Beatles album "The White Album," there's ballads, and there's sound experiments by Lennon. There are soft sounds, hard songs, instrumental.

She does a very similar thing in that essay, which I find profound. And, also, it took 10 years. You couldn't make a cohesive narrative about the times, because the times weren't cohesive. So she found this way, which is to kind of make a verbal record of the times.

Joan Didion: I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Didion also published the acclaimed novels "Play It as It Lays" and "A Book of Common Prayer."

Her life was marked by two tragedies. In the span of two years, she lost her husband and closest literary confidant, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and then their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. She chronicled those shattering losses with a clarity that illuminated truths within the fog of grief, first in "The Year of Magical Thinking," which won the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD in 2005 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and, later, "Blue Nights"" in 2011.

I spoke with her about that book and her writing process.

Joan Didion: You could say that was a form of healing, but it's not the form most people depend on.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you think of writing as a way of keeping emotional distance, or not?

Joan Didion: Well, you do. Of course you do.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Joan Didion: I don't know any -- it's both a way of keeping a distance and a way of getting close. There are certain things that you do learn to live -- that you -- that only by living through them do you learn to live through them.

Jeffrey Brown: And what about understanding them through writing about them?

Joan Didion: Through writing about them. That's how you understand -- that's how you start to understand them.

Jeffrey Brown: President Barack Obama awarded Didion the National Medal of Arts and Humanities in 2013.

Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: Somebody like Joan Didion, who rightly has earned distinction as one of the most celebrated American writers of her generation. Decades into her career, she remains one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: Joan Didion died from complications of Parkinson's disease. She was 87 years old.

And joining me now is Griffin Dunne. He's Joan Didion's nephew. He's an actor and filmmaker and director of the 2017 documentary "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold."

Thank you so much for joining us.

And, first, we send condolences to you and to your family.

I want to start with a famous Joan Didion line. It's the beginning of that essay "The White Album." She says: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

It's a model of her writing. Is it also how she saw her life?

Griffin Dunne, Actor and Filmmaker: Completely.

You know, she wrote to find out what she thought. She -- "The Year of Magical Thinking" was her delving into grief. And it was the first agnostic book about grief, that she had no intention of it meaning so much to so many people who are -- had lost their loved ones.

But that turned out to be the case. She had to figure out what she felt about things. And it was a relationship between her and the typewriter. That was her dictum from the earliest -- her earliest writings, even at "Vogue."

Jeffrey Brown: And the writing itself, of course, there's a Joan Didion style that generations of journalists and writers have studied, have emulated.

How do you describe it, what she was doing in her writing?

Griffin Dunne: Well, it was clearly sparse.

She had a distinctive point of view that was rather controversial at the time, be it about feminism or the Central Park Five, that the rest of the media, it took them a while to catch up to. She had her own voice. She -- her own particular perspective on life, on culture, on media, on politics, that -- and heard a voice that other people, it took a while for them to catch on to.

And so her perspective was entirely unique, and greatly appreciated in time by her fans.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, what about personally? What was she like? And how much was her life tied to her writing?

Griffin Dunne: Very much.

She would -- one of her most famous essays, when she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were having marital problems, that was her material. At the time, she was writing for The Saturday Evening Post, and both -- alternately with John, one week, John, and, another week, Joan.

And she was unhappy in her marriage and was considering having a divorce. So she wrote about it, and then took the copy and handed it to John, who edited it.

So, life was her material. That was how she wrote.

Jeffrey Brown: As someone who knew her and then did the documentary, how do you see her legacy? What is it that you want people watching this to remember about her?

Griffin Dunne: Well, I have to tell you, today is -- today has been incredible.

There's just been so much love that has come about her toward me and from her fans and the media.

Sorry.

Jeffrey Brown: It's OK.

Griffin Dunne: I think she will be remembered.

I think she will be remembered for all time. Her readership has just grown. I'm so proud that I was able to make that documentary. It brought a whole new readership, a whole new generation of young people to her work.

And her legacy will be as a woman from the -- with a strong point of view, who came from the West, whose ancestors were homesteaders, and her strength carries on.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Griffin Dunne on the life and legacy of Joan Didion, thank you so much for joining us.

Griffin Dunne: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: And deep condolences to Joan Didion's family.

And thank you for that interview, Jeffrey and Mr. Dunne.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
+
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.